Native American month in Tennessee last year observed with great programs and firsts

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) April 2012
The month of November last year, proclaimed by President Obama as Native American Month was observed throughout Middle Tennessee with American Indian programs at a major university and the main public library.
At Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, just south of Nashville, Native American students organized their first annual Native American Tribal Culture Day.
“The Tribal Culture Day indicated that MTSU is developing an appreciation for the diversity of tribal people in America. The traditional seasonal foods, artists fron various tribes, both traditional and contemporary musicians and traditional dancers and drummers exhibited important aspects of modern Native American life. Perhaps even more impactive were the guest speakers, whose topics and experiences conveyed the importance of providing correct information” said coordinator Melissa Shelby, a Native graduate student in Biotechnology.
The Culture Day, indeed, included vendors, drummers, musicians and speakers. Among the speakers was Ron Colombe, who is Sigangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Colombe currently lives in Aiken, South Carolina and operates an arts and crafts store. He is an accomplished speaker and also an author who has published his own book of poetry, entitled Silent Shouting, Quiet War and has recorded a CD, “Thoughts Like A Bullet.” He has been an emcee at numerous powwows throughout the Southeast.
In the musical genre, Timo Standing Buffalo, provided the gathering with melodic Native American sounds combined with classically smooth jazz and a touch of big band pop. He released his first album in 2007, titled “Feathers and Blades.” He has played with many major nationally known artists.
Among the other speakers was Sonny McMillan, a Mississippi Band Choctaw, who gave a forceful presentation on “Native Pride.” This was part of a panel discussion of various Native issues. Included in the program was a dinner with a large number and large quantity of traditional Native dishes, including venison. The program ended with traditional social dancing.
A few days later, at the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, there was a free screening of the film “ We are still here-As Nutayunean” by Anne Makepeace, sponsored by Community Cinema of Nashville. There was also panel discussion after the screening.
“Each Community Cinema movie is a learning experience, not only from the films themselves but also from the panel members. This film and discussion reminded me that languages change over time and are given new life with each generation. Middle school students in Nashville who saw the film were fascinated by the Wampanoag story. It showed how much language is connectedf to pride and identity” said Allison Inman, ITVS National Engagement Consultant, who organized the showing.
This was a film about the efforts of the Wampanoags of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to revive their Native tongue among tribal members. The film is also the account of tribal member , Jessie Little Doe Baird, who became a driving force for the inception of the language revitalization and who also, became a linguist in the process. When Baird began her efforts to bring back the language , it had not been spoken since the mid-19th Century.
Baird and the other Wampanoags are the descendants of the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims. Their history is literally “the stuff of legends.” After initial amicable relations with the English newcomers, matters deteriorated due to European aggression and erupted into one of the most sanguinary Indian/ white wars in colonial history in 1675. There were thousands of casualties on each side; the Wampanog survivors regrouped and continued to endure in communities on small tracts of land in their original domain.
After the war , the Wampanoags were the first American Indians to adopt a phonetic writing system based on English characters, which resulted in a proliferation of 17th and 18th Century legal documents. Most of these records were wills and deeds for which there were translations in English while Wampanoag was still a spoken language by all tribal members.
Equally , or even more important, was a published translation of the Bible into Wampanoag by missionaries at Harvard in 1663. The Biblical translation of Wampanoag was ironic in that the goal of the missionaries was to assimilate the tribe into English culture by Christian conversion.
In 1993 the Wampanoag Nation started the Wopanaak (Wampanoag) Language Reclamation Project to revive the language. Wampanoag belongs to the Algonquian language family. Baird in order to strengthen the Project , applied for a research fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she worked with prominent scholars in other Algonquian languages.             Though she had no formal language training back ground, she graduated with a Masters Degree in linguistics, at the same time raising four young children.
The film documents how Baird studied other Algonquian languages to reconstruct Wampanoag grammar and develop a dictionary for the language. She met with other Algonquian langauge speakers, such as the Delaware, Penobscot and Passamoquody and found their languages mutually intelligible.                             
After 20 years of devotion to this work, Baird was able to revive the language and bring about a greater appreciation for the tribal heritage among the Wampanoag people.
Anne Makepeace who made the film had a personal connection to Wampanoag history in that she was a descendant of the English settlers who made war on the tribe.She disclosed her family history, when she contacted the Wampanoag communities about making the film.
The film was inspirationally received by the audience and panel members many of whom were involved in revitalization, reclamation and preservation of their own tribal tongues.